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August Wilson battles cancer

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On Friday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspapers shocked theater fans by reporting that one of the country's greatest playwrights, Pittsburgh native and Seattle resident August Wilson, 60, had advanced liver cancer.

A representative for Wilson, whose cycle of plays tracing the experiences of black Americans through the 20th century includes Pulitzer Prize winners Fences and The Piano Lesson and last season's Tony Award nominee Gem of the Ocean, said: "The prognosis is serious, but Mr. Wilson is dealing with the matter head-on. Those close to Mr. Wilson remain optimistic."

But Wilson, who is married to Constanza Romero

and has a 7-year-old daughter, Azula Carmen, told the Post-Gazette that doctors had given him only a few months to live. He added: "I've lived a blessed life. I'm ready."

This did not come as news to Gordon Davidson, outgoing artistic director of Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. Wilson knew of his condition when Radio Golf, the final play of his cycle, transferred to the Taper, where it is running through Sept. 18. "He asked for privacy," Davidson says. "But he has been remarkable, determined to do the work. He's even working on a new set of notes, to put things in before we close."

James Bundy, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, where Golf had its world premiere last April, also knew Wilson was ill. "It's shocking. August is so full of life and energy and creativity and joy."

The off-Broadway Signature Theatre had been set to dedicate its 2006-07 season to Wilson's work. In a statement, Signature founding artistic director James Houghton said the company's "thoughts and prayers are with (Wilson) and his family. ... We remain fully committed to working with August on crafting a season plan that will celebrate his extraordinary contribution to the American theater."

That contribution includes the dramas Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, Jitney and King Hedley II.

In a USA TODAY interview last spring, Wilson, who started as a poet, spoke of working on his first comic play and a novel, as well as a film version of Fences.

Davidson says Wilson remains "witty and philosophical in moments. In spite of what he's going through, he still seems focused on the work and excited about it. He wants to write more, and if he has the strength, I'm sure he will."

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